*Originally published on RYOT.org on September 4th, 2015 by Sean Sawyer*
Today on #ThrowbackThursday (not #TomBradyThursday), we bring you some Totally Rad History highlighting interesting figures that you may never have heard of. Today, we highlight a hero veteran Petty Officer Douglas Brent Hegdahl III.
Petty Officer Douglas Brent Hegdahl III was born in Clark, South Dakota and at the ripe age of 19, he joined the Unites States Navy in attempts to see the world. The young country bumpkin was only 20 years old when the blast of a 5-inch artillery gun blew him overboard off of the USS Canberra. Although Hegdahl was breaking protocol by climbing the gun to get a better view of a nighttime bombardment of Vietnam effectively putting his life in danger, perhaps it was his destiny to fall overboard that night.
Hegdahl swam in the South China Sea for hours alone until a group of North Vietnamese fishermen rescued him. These fishermen brought him back to land where he was turned over to the Communist regime and placed inside the Hỏa Lò Prison in North Vietnam. The Hỏa Lò Prison was later infamously nicknamed by the American POWs there as the Hanoi Hilton.
The POWs in the Hanoi Hilton were primarily older American pilots who were shot down then captured by the North Vietnamese. This made the young sailor seem out of place within the prison. The North Vietnamese interrogators noticed the difference as well as Hegdahl and the rest of the Americans. Hegdahl realized that he would be able to convince the interrogators that he was not like the older pilots. He convinced them that he was a simple country bumpkin who was illiterate. He made a connection with his captures by comparing Vietnam to South Dakota for the farms they had and what life was like working hard for a living.
Rumor has it that Hegdahl was the first American to not be tortured immediately because he joyously agreed to write anti-American propaganda, but he never actually did because he had convinced them he was illiterate. The North Vietnamese tried to teach him to read and write because Hegdahl had convinced them he was a poor peasant open to communist ideas, but when he “failed” to learn they gave up. The interrogators had taken the bait and Hegdahl was able to become a spy within the Hanoi Hilton.
Hegdahl was then coined the nickname “The Incredibly Stupid One” by his captors and they allowed him free roam of the prison. However, this could not be further from the truth. Hegdahl started to study their maps and learned the location of some of their prisons. He sabotaged some of their trucks by filling the gas tanks with dirt. But the most important thing he learned was the names of all of the 256 POWs in the camp and he did so to the tune of Old McDonald.
2 years after falling overboard, Hegdahl accepted a release from the camp on August 5, 1969. Traditionally, American soldiers would decline to be released by the North Vietnamese, who did so only for propaganda reasons, because it was seen as being weak and dishonorable to the other prisoners. Hegdahl initially rejected any release but because of the information he had learned the older pilots ordered him to accept the release.
Petty Officer Hegdahl took his knowledge back to the US and provided key details about the prisons and the well-being of soldier MIA who turned out to still be alive as POWs in the camp.
In 1970, Hegdahl was sent to the Paris Peace Talks to inform the conference on how POWs were treated by the North Vietnamese.
Hegdahl is still alive today and can still sing the tune of all 256 POWs.